A patron buys a beer not far from Bishop Tsietsi Makiti’s table at Limusa Tavern in Evaton in the Vaal. A bottle is handed to him for a “blessing”. Only then can it be opened and drunk during proceedings at his church.
This scenario was part of last Sunday’s service at Gabola Church, which is all of three months old. Gabola is a Sotho word for taking a gulp or simply drinking. Although the scene resembled a film set, it was all too real.
Makiti, wearing his cleric’s hat with a bold cross stitched in gold on the front, presided over a 4.5-litre bottle of Johnnie Walker Red Label whisky and a 5-litre Castle Lager container.
Clad in a grey and maroon robe, with a black tippet running along his grey suit and purple cleric’s shirt, Makiti would habitually quench his thirst by taking a sip from his whisky glass as the congregation sang.
“This is where those labelled ‘drunkards’ by other churches are welcome,” Makiti said.
He said the idea behind his church was to create an environment where consumers of alcohol – who are condemned by mainstream churches – could find a home.
Makiti conducts his Sunday service at a different tavern each week. “Here, we drink in public and praise the Lord at the same time. This is not a joke … this is a space for people to come together in God’s name without being ashamed of being drinkers.”
Makiti said his church would not allow “misbehaving youth and children” to attend services because the idea was to “create a sense of brotherhood among ourselves”.
“Women are also not allowed because we have men who are drinking, and we cannot have instances where some of them start troubling these women.
“We will allow women at a later stage, once our [male] congregants have been well prepared,” he said.
“Wherever we hold our services, we disallow children from buying alcohol, even if they are sent by their parents; we send them back.”
Despite his comments, a few women did attend that day’s service, but Makiti said this was because the owner of Limusa Tavern was a woman.
A comedy of mishaps took place during the proceedings. One man walked into the tavern, missed a step and fell over several unoccupied chairs.
Some congregants reacted with a loud “gabola!” as others helped him to his feet.
Another man dropped his beer to the ground and the bottle spilt its contents. In the corner, a man was enjoying a quiet nap without being bothered by anyone.
The spirit of brotherhood was overwhelming as often one man would walk to another and ask for spare cash to help him buy one more drink.
Others would ask to take a sip from a person’s glass or directly from the bottle on the table.
“Go ahead, take a sip … we live to share,” responded one member, before bursting into song and dance.
“If you drink beer, you get baptised in beer”
On approaching Limusa Tavern from the street, it appeared as if a group of drunken men were singing joyfully inside. On entering, the men’s eagerness to participate in every song and dance routine was obvious.
Judging by their glowing faces, they were enjoying themselves.
Although they sang several gospel songs, a current kwaito hit by De Mogul SA, titled Oe Batla Kae and featuring Mss Mo and Makhesa, was particularly popular with the bishop and was repeatedly sung. Beers in hand, the congregation sang progressively louder as they danced and jumped around the tavern floor.
The proceedings at Gobala Church appeared chaotic compared with a typical service. Some said they did not clean up before coming to the church, but merely pitched up, knowing they would still be welcomed.
“I grew up in a yard where a church service is held to this day. At a later stage, I was barred because I drink. I am happy today to have found a home in Gabola Church,” was one member’s testimony, to jubilant applause from congregants.
According to Makiti, more than 2 000 people have already been baptised at his new “fellowship” – with their drink of choice.
“If you drink beer, you get baptised in beer. The same goes for those who drink cider and other alcoholic beverages,” he said.
Makiti swears by his unconventional approach to religion, saying the spin-offs since Gabola Church started have changed negative attitudes among his patrons.
“There is no more fighting in taverns. Crime has gone down in the neighbourhoods as we appreciate each other as brothers,” he said.
Makiti added that, considering recent media reports about strange goings-on in other churches countrywide – ranging from congregants being sprayed with pesticide to those being made to drink petrol or eat grass – there was nothing wrong with his church’s values.
“All we do is drink, praise and appreciate God at the same time. We don’t promise anyone magic.
“We are only saying this is an environment where one can drink without being judged at all,” he said.
Asked about the future, the bishop said he was planning to launch branches and baptise more members countrywide.
“We have been overwhelmed with invitations from across the country. People want us to come and launch Gabola Church. We are going to the North West soon, as well as other provinces,” he said.
When Makiti delivered his sermon, movement in the church subsided. Men sat down to listen to him while continuing to sip their drinks, often reacting loudly with a supportive “Amen!” or “gabola!”
Some were continuously called to order as they commented loudly while the sermon was under way.
But Makiti was resolute.
“Let us spend our money … it’s our money. Let us enjoy it and support our taverns. Go out there and tell them … those who are labelled drunkards … to come to Gabola Church because the kingdom of God belongs to them,” he preached.
“Don’t look down on yourself just because you drink alcohol. Don’t worry – because in Gabola Church, you’re also a child of God,” he concluded.